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Duke's rate of sexual assault is a campus health emergency

In a recent article in The Chronicle, the results of a survey given to Duke undergraduates in 2018 showed that almost 48 percent of women respondents at Duke were sexually assaulted, a number which does not include coerced sexual contact and sexual harassment. This is unacceptable. Imagine if almost 50 percent of students contracted an illness which affected their health, school performance, and may impact the rest of their lives. If this were anything but sexual assault, it would have been seen and addressed as a public health and campus emergency. 

Unfortunately, these numbers come as no surprise to me, nor, I imagine to many of my colleagues in the area. I have been a physician for Duke students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as Duke faculty and staff, across many departments and disciplines since 1985. In my office, I have treated many women—too numerous to count—who have been victims of every sort of sexual misconduct. Women who were sexually assaulted by fellow students, their lives shattered while their assailants went free, often going on to lucrative careers unmarred by the experience.  Female students who told of being touched inappropriately by their advisers, taking it as a matter of course, undergraduates raped by fellow students, seduced by professors. Women graduate students relay that their principal investigators have harassed, humiliated and/or propositioned them. I have seen medical students whose attending physicians or research advisers had an expectation of sexual favors, graduate students who were stalked and harassed, and resident physicians who were victims of sexual misconduct by attending physicians. 

This is but a brief recounting of the types of incidents heard over the years, all of them occurring at Duke. And I am but one psychiatrist seeing a minute portion of the Duke community, most of them privileged enough to seek and afford treatment.  

It has been an honor to work with these women, to be entrusted with their pain and the difficult journey they undertake to process these grievous wounds, knowing that, even when healing occurs, the scars can be permanent. As a psychiatrist, I have validated and supported, prescribed medication, provided psychotherapy and trauma work. These women took time away from their own work and used their own financial resources to try to heal themselves and return to their lives and careers. That is another, often overlooked, cost of sexual misconduct, discrimination and misogyny. 

Duke’s responses to this issue are better than they used to be, but still inadequate. Requiring that incoming undergraduates take online classes, "AlcoholEdu and Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates," is a step, but no substitute for in-person required training and institutional responsibility. While the Office of Gender Violence and Prevention offers other options and training, those programs are based in the Women’s Center, a tacit implication that this is a women’s problem, not a Duke problem.

And yet, despite the clear and pervasive problem, there seems to be no urgent response by Duke to these numbers. Inviting the head of “Time’s Up” to be the 2019 graduation speaker is a gesture, (now complicated by her resignation), but while men in power at Duke continue to abuse their privilege with impunity, it is not enough. The cultural climate facing women at Duke is pernicious; it is in need of meaningful and swift action to make Duke a place where all can thrive.

Mindy Oshrain, M.D.’83, H.S. ’83-‘87

Mindy Oshrain is a consulting associate in the School of Medicine's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

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